Last year, I inherited an old button-up wool shirt in red and black buffalo check. It’s a heavy piece of clothing, made of thick, itchy wool, with cuffs worn from years of wear.
The shirt had belonged to my grandma, a woman who died before I was born. She’d had it since she was younger than me: There’s apparently some picture somewhere of her hoisting a beer stein at a late-1940s University of Minnesota sorority function in it.
She and my grandpa took their three girls camping every summer when they were little. On these trips, my grandma often wore this shirt. It used to smell like campfire, my mom said, and seeing the shirt again after so many years brought back lots of memories.
The shirt came out of retirement at a good time. Buffalo check has been having a moment. It was featured in a New York Times magazine style piece. It was spotted on Kylie Jenner. It’s suddenly everywhere.
But in Minnesota, it never really went away. Buffalo check is synonymous with the northwoods, found in cabins, on throws, in the governor’s residence, and on Paul Bunyan’s enormous plaid shirt.
How did buffalo check become so deeply tied to life here?
Like buffalo plaid’s biggest fashion icon, the history of the pattern is somewhat shrouded in legend.
The origin of buffalo check isn’t Minnesotan at all, or even American. It’s Scottish. The pattern, which alternates red checks, black checks, and dual-tone red and black checks, is listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans as “Rob Roy MacGregor,” and dates to the early 1700s.
It got the name “Rob Roy” through association with Rob Roy MacGregor, a Highland outlaw-turned Robin Hood figure immortalized in a Sir Walter Scott book. (Members of the Clan Gregor say the “Rob Roy” name is a misnomer, since he wasn’t, they claim, a member of their clan. They call it MacGregor black.)
Regardless of its Scottish origins, Pennsylvania-based Woolrich started producing the pattern in the U.S. in 1850.
Woolrich supposedly named the pattern “buffalo” in honor of the young man who first weaved it for them, who kept bison on his hobby farm. According to the Baltimore Sun, John Rich II, the co-founder of Woolrich, traveled to lumber camps with a mule-drawn cart to sell his wool goods in the surrounding mountains.
Minnesota can’t claim to have invented buffalo check, but it is very popular here.
Bemidji Woolen Mills, one of many companies that produces buffalo check, has been making goods in the pattern since the year the company was founded, 1920, said Bill Batchelder, the company’s fourth-generation owner. But checkerboard-patterned plaid seems to have been in the area before then.
If you look at old logging camp pictures, lumberjacks are often wearing checked shirts. The pictures are black and white, so it’s tough to determine exactly what colors these lumberjacks might have been wearing, but white and black checks actually appeared to be more common than red and black, said Catherine Daly, a research associate at the Celtic Junction Art Center’s Eoin McKiernan Library, who has researched lumberjack dress.
Apart from the need to dress warmly in a northwoods logging season that spanned the coldest months, there was a certain uniformity to lumberjack dress, owing to the fact that many loggers bought their clothing in camp stores at their worksites, Daly said.
The logging boom was mostly over by the 1920s. As lumberjacks became scarce, the clothing manufacturers who had once catered to them set their sights on a new target demographic: the leisure class.
“Sportswear came about because people had money — they were able to spend money on clothing that was specialized for certain activities,” Daly said: Like logging, hunting and fishing were then considered manly pursuits, and men looked to the image of the lumberjack as they dressed for the outdoors.
Around this time, the myth of Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who made lakes with his footprints and combed his beard with pine trees, made his way from logging camp lore to the broader public imagination.
Red River Lumber Company, in Akeley, Minnesota, hired an illustrator to draw Paul Bunyan. William Laughead’s stories and illustrations brought Paul Bunyan to life for a wider audience in a series of pamphlets marketing Red River Lumber products.
In Laughead’s illustrations, Bunyan was first depicted in red and white plaid, Daly said. At some point though, Bunyan became oft-associated with red and black. In statutes in Minnesota and Maine — even the animatronic Bunyan at the Mall of America — he’s depicted in red and black buffalo check.
Daly thinks the popularity of red and black buffalo check came from the sportswear industry. By the 1940s, buffalo check was all over the place. Sears and other Department stores advertised buffalo check “leisurejack” suits, shirts for boys and women’s after ski suits.
Batchelder has been working at Bemidji Woolen Mills, the company founded by his grandfather and great-grandfather, since 1972. In his early days there, he wondered why his family kept producing buffalo plaid year after year after year.
“I always challenged my father, my grandfather and my uncle. I said, ‘When are we going to do something new? This red and black, we have it every year. I’m looking at these other fashion houses; they change every single year,’” Batchelder remembered. “My grandfather said ‘The red and black buffalo shirt has always been our best-selling shirt. It continues to be our best-selling shirt.’”
Batchelder has since come around to his grandfather’s way of thinking on buffalo plaid. “I actually have a file in my office, and it’s titled ‘All Things Buffalo Plaid,’ so whenever I get something that’s buffalo plaid, I put it in there.” The folder’s contents include sleeves from Caribou Coffee cups, a Farm Bureau brochure, a Bike Alliance Minnesota Survey report, a Hockey Day in Minnesota sponsorship card and lots of other items.
Buffalo check has come to be associated, especially, with Bemidji, not just because of Bemidji Woolen Mills making it there for 100 years, but also because of residents’ sometimes-concerted efforts to wear it, both in and out of Bemidji.
Every year, the Bemidji Chamber of Commerce organizes a Bemidji Day at the Minnesota State Capitol. But nobody gets on the bus to go unless they’re wearing a red and black buffalo check shirt or vest from Bemidji Woolen Mills, Batchelder said.
Because the red and black is so distinctive, Batchelder’s heard Bemidji Day is the most well-recognized at the capitol.
Pretty much every governor in recent memory has had his own Bemidji Woolen Mills plaid shirt, Batchelder said — since long before Gov. Tim Walz, a notorious wearer of red and black plaid (Batchelder said Walz’s favorite jacket is not quite buffalo check, and perhaps only half-joked that he’s heartbroken it was made by Filson, a Seattle brand).
As for the pattern’s lasting appeal?
“It looks really good on everyone, whether you’re a young person, a middle-aged person or an older person,” Batchelder said. “It really goes good with khakis. It goes good with jeans. It goes good with black pants. It just seems that it is probably the most multi-purpose plaid out there.”
Bringing back plaid
Susan Brown, a textile curator at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, said she thinks the enduring popularity of buffalo check might have to do with its place in history. “I think of logging, or woodsmanship more broadly, as a kind of northern version of cowboy culture — a particularly American form of being in nature as a working person, rather than a hiker/tourist/pleasure seeker,” she wrote in an email.
As opposed to the garments associated with hunting and being in the woods today — safety orange and camouflage, which are complicated by military and gun rights associations, “buffalo check takes us back to a simpler, less politicized vision of American identity,” she wrote.
Daly doesn’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence that Buffalo check was so big in 2016 and 2017, though its popularity seems to have diminished somewhat more recently. Buffalo check evokes warmth, coziness, and it cuts across class distinctions.
“You have to look at the politics. People are trying to find some safety net, I think,” she said.